A couple of months ago I invited the congregation I serve to give me some topics which could be developed or incorporated into our morning worship. Someone wrote down the question, “What is Heaven like?” I remember reading that and thinking… “That won’t be easy.” So I did the best thing I could think of… I would avoid it. Well, about a month after that, someone else (I assume it was someone else) asked me what I thought about Hell and whether there was such a place and what I thought of a current author’s ideas on the subject. I remember him asking these things and thinking… “This won’t be easy.” And during that conversation, the Spirit gave me the impression that I now had a missing ingredient to partner with the Heaven question and that I would need to give more attention to listening…because there was another “forgotten” ingredient that needed to be proclaimed in all this Heaven and Hell business. I’ll get to that in a bit… but first let’s talk about Heaven.
Heaven is often described in images, right? Some of our images come from Scripture and some come from popular culture. There are the Pearly Gates with Peter and his keys; golden streets and a river of life; there are mansions and angels with harps; on and on. Ultimately, Heaven is depicted as a good place to be after this earthly existence.
Hell, on the other hand, is depicted as a bad place to be. It, too, is often described in images. A Lake of Fire surrounded by devils with pitchforks poking people down into their sulfurous suffering; darkness, weeping, and teeth grinding; on and on. Again, some of our images come from Scripture and some from popular culture.
I didn’t bring up Heaven and Hell simply to provide a travel brochure for either place. Instead, I was led to speak of our motivations regarding Heaven and Hell. I asked them—and I ask you—what is the reason why you want to go to Heaven? Is it because you want to reunite with family members and friends? Is Heaven a miracle-cure hospital for you… no more pains and no more anxieties? Is it because Heaven sounds like a wonderful country club where the putting greens are always cut, the pool is relaxing, and the quality of service is angelic? Is it a group of perfectly pious and holy people… no more of the earthly, sinful “riff raff”? Is it because you want to avoid Hell?
Why is it that you don’t want to go to Hell? I, personally, don’t do well in the heat. Is it the darkness, the pitchfork, or the smell of sulfur? Would ending up there be a contradiction to all the good things you’ve done here on Earth? More than likely it is the simple idea of Hell being punishment.
I’m going to be honest here and say that I don’t know a whole lot about either Heaven or Hell. I don’t know if the descriptions of Heaven and Hell are like the biblical descriptions of the Promised Land in Exodus… “a land flowing with milk and honey…” which is definitely figurative and referring to God’s blessing because the true environment of the Holy Land is not that great OR if the description of Heaven and Hell are like the description of Solomon’s Temple…spelled out in literal, specific detail. I have friends who are sincere Believers and see it both ways. And even though I am convinced that Heaven and Hell are real outcomes…I have friends who are sincere Believers who are not convinced that Heaven and Hell are not real.
I assume that many of you—after hearing that—are struggling with my attaching “sincere Believers” to the phrase “don’t believe in the places of Heaven/Hell.” Well, here’s where I think I’m going out on a limb. I am convinced that the ideas of Heaven and Hell are too often a distraction to the Christian faith. And these places distract both those who believe in them and those who do not.
Why are they distractions? Because we all-too-often think about ourselves or our own personal interests when it comes to Heaven and Hell… “Will I make it? Will my family and friends be there? Will I be bored? Will I suffer? Will I die the Second Death…forever?” You see, all these questions reveal our self-centeredness! Instead, our focus is to be on Jesus Christ and our love-relationship with him. He is the destination. That’s it, end of point. Because whatever destination you and I end up in is really inconsequential to us compared to the relationship we have with Jesus Christ.
And here is the most egregious part in the distraction of Heaven and Hell: when we put Heaven and Hell as the destination—the goal—of our earthly pursuits, Jesus becomes a tool or equation for our strategy; Jesus becomes our “gate pass” or “fire insurance.” If you want to talk of blasphemy…this is truly blasphemy. In fact if we were to reflect on the “sheep and goats” parable in Matthew 25—which speaks of Christ judging the world—we see that both groups call Jesus Lord…both believe him to be their Savior, but Jesus says that only one group really knew him (not knew about him, but knew him relationally). It also reminds me what Jesus says when he describes how he will judge in the end according to Matthew 7… “Many will come to me and say, Lord, Lord did we not do [this and that] in your name…but I will tell them ‘I knew you not…depart from me.’”
Here’s the point made in two short sentences: To know Jesus Christ—to be in a real, vital relationship—is the purpose and goal of our life. Do not be distracted by heavenly delights or hellish frights—or other people’s beliefs on such things.
For many years I was distracted by just this last statement—there are so many thoughts on Heaven and Hell (what they will be like or why they don’t exist and whatever else can be said about them). Finally, the Spirit asked me: if all the delights of Heaven (even Heaven itself) and all the fears of Hell (even Hell itself) were to disappear as a reward or punishment…would you stick with me? And it made sense… it was just like when a spouse asks the other spouse, “Do you love me for me or do you love me for what you get for being with me?”
If our relationship with Jesus Christ is about anything other than being in a love-relationship with him, we not only miss the point of God’s Covenant, we abuse Love and Grace.
This guest post was written by Chad Riggs. Chad is a former Oak Hills professor and currently serves as the pastor of First Friends Church in Colorado Springs, CO